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High above the steep, mile-deep walls of Hells Canyon, the heavenly Seven Devils Mountains reveal their scenic solitude to hikers for only a few months.

But what a splendid few months those are.Don't be misled by the ominously named toothy range that grins over the rim of North America's deepest river gorge.

Though fiercely cold and snowy in west-central Idaho's winter, the climate mellows considerably under the blazing summer sun.

And the Devils spring to life.

In July and August, vast blooms of wildflowers carpet rolling green meadows. Hardy crimson Indian paintbrush vie for space in the fragile volcanic soil with delicate, white-petaled sego lilies.

A kaleidoscope of yellow sedum, pink columbine, lavender lupine, purple penstemon and white yarrow dazzle the occasional trekker.

Downy white mountain goats scramble around the sharp, black basalt cliffs.

Feisty trout leap and twist at their insect meals in the 30 or so clear, alpine lakes that pocket the Devils' lap.

And the views into the yawning canyon to the west can steal the breath of already breathless hikers.

The Seven Devils are part of Hells Canyon Wilderness, included in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

More than 1,000 miles of surprisingly well-maintained trails wind through the recreation area's 650,000-plus acres.

The trails' neatness is surprising because more than 75 percent of the area is roadless.

Perhaps some hikers abide by the volunteer trail maintenance rule of "Flip a stick, kick a rock or saw a log."

Slicing smack through the middle of the recreation area and still carving the canyon's bottom is the Snake River, which divides Idaho and Oregon.

The Snake and its mighty white waters draw most of the visitors to the lower reaches of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area - about 70,000 in 1993, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Not nearly as many people (about 10,000 last year) enter from the top, in the shadow of the Seven Devils.

"I like the fact that it is fairly quiet, at least during the week," says Tanya Cazier, information receptionist at the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area office in Riggins, primary entry point to the wilderness.

The relatively small amount of foot traffic helps preserve the fine, easily compacted soil, she says. In fact, the Forest Service is studying human impact on the area to make sure it isn't damaged.

"It's very fragile, high alpine country," Cazier notes. "The growing season's incredibly short."

Indeed, the Seven Devils Wilderness officially opens to hikers the first week of July, when the snow melts from the steep roads leading in.

The season lasts til the middle of October, when the weather turns fickle.

"A lot of times the first (snowstorms) are fairly mild, then they'll get real severe real fast and it's hard to drive out," Cazier warns.

A unique aspect of this wilderness is the wide-ranging terrain in a relatively small area.

For instance, a popular 27-mile trail called The Loop begins at Windy Saddle and takes in a stunning vista that includes the Seven Devils and Oregon's Wallowa Mountains.

It winds through timbered hills and grassy meadows, over dry, rocky switchbacks, and beside trickling streams with heavily vegetated banks.

Because of the range in landscape and altitude (Riggins is 1,800 feet in elevation; Windy Saddle is 7,200 feet, a 17-mile climb from Riggins), backpackers should be prepared for all kinds of weather, including snow.

On a private llama pack trek last August, our shorts-clad party of four left baking Riggins, drove to the aptly named Windy Saddle and backpacked a few miles toward the canyon before a cool, drizzly rain began. Rain jackets, pants and gloves seemed right for the moment.

For most of the three-day trip the sun shone brilliantly, but when it set, we broke out wool sweaters, even parkas to ward off the chill of dewfall.

And don't expect to see a lot of other people.

One day our group hiked an entire day, from the canyon's rim to Echo Lake at the base of 9,393-foot He Devil Mountain and back, and never saw another soul. All the more dwarf huckleberries for us to eat.

If hikers ever tire of the panoramas, they may wish to explore the many historic cabins and homesteads nearer and within the canyon. Most were built in the mid-1800s when gold was discovered in river bars.

Most backpackers enter the Seven Devils Wilderness by foot, Cazier says, though area outfitters offer horseback riding trips.

(Private llama trekkers should yield to horse packers on steep trails since most horses have never seen the woolly, spaghetti-necked ruminants and may spook.)

Because of the sensitive nature of the ecological system, Cazier advises "no-trace" camping in areas that have already been camped.

Those traveling with stock animals should take pelletized feed or weed-free hay to avoid introducing foreign plant species.

When the trails have been scaled and the mountains climbed, the canyon's call may prove too strong to ignore.

In that case, do what most visitors to the recreation area do: Head down, way down, to the Snake River for fishing, rafting or lolling on the banks.

Enter Hells Canyon several ways, if not on foot or by boat (at Lewiston, Idaho, or Clarkston, Wash.) then by car via the towns of Cambridge, Council or White Bird, Idaho; or Enterprise, Imnaha, Halfway or Baker City, Ore.

The rapids below Hells Canyon Dam drop hundreds of feet before eventually meeting the Columbia River, providing plenty of white water for rafters.

Three dams - Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon - pool the waters of the Snake for decent fishing. Rainbow and steelhead trout, smallmouth bass, catfish and prehistoric-looking sturgeon glide around the reservoirs and river.

Because the canyon's climate is more temperate, the tourist season lasts longer than in the Seven Devils, generally from May to November.

But for the adventurous few willing to risk dicey weather and a non-touristy, potentially solitary experience, try Hells Canyon from the top.



If you go

For information on the Seven Devils Wilderness, contact the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, P.O. Box 832, Riggins, Idaho; (208) 628-3916.

For information on Hells Canyon, contact the Riggins office or any of the following three offices:

- Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Headquarters, 88401 Highway 82, Enterprise, Ore. 97828; (503) 426-4978

- Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Headquarters, P.O. Box 907, Baker, Ore. 97814; (503) 523-6391.

- Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, P.O. Box 699, Clarkston, Wash. 99403; (509) 758-1957

- For information on horse or llama packing, rafting or jet-boat trips, contact:

- Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, P.O. Box 95, Boise, Idaho; (208) 342-1919

- Oregon Guides and Packers, P.O. Box 3797, Portland, Ore. 97208; (503) 683-9552